October, 2010 / Author:

The new season’s line-up for Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, marketed as “ballet for the adventurous,” illustrates once again that the renowned troupe continues to build on a great tradition. The RWB returns with high-quality classics and another world premiere that follows on the success of last year’s Moulin Rouge. This year also marks principal dancer Tara Birtwhistle’s final season as a professional dancer after 25 years with the company.

The RWB starts the season with internationally acclaimed choreographer Mark Godden’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With a stunning set and fabulous costumes (61 costumes made from more than 750 metres of fabric!), Gustav Mahler’s musical score performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and dark shadows and passion this is a not-to-be-missed classic gothic ballet. Tara Birtwhistle dances the part of Lucy Westenra, one of the wealthy damsels initiated into Dracula’s world. 

The holiday season features the sentimental charmer – Nutcracker. This Tchaikovsky classic brings the yuletide festival to new heights at a fictional home set on Winnipeg’s prestigious Wellington Crescent. There is much to love about this feel good ballet highlighting a youngster’s rich Christmas fantasy with all of the trimmings – great music, dancing mice, toy soldiers and mischievous bears. 

In March 2011, the most adventurous part of the ballet season kicks into gear with the much anticipated world premiere of Wonderland, which offers a new take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Choreographer Shawn Hounsell’s version of Alice is billed as “Alice like you’ve never seen her before.”

Birtwhistle describes Hounsell’s ballet as whimsical and magical with all of the recognizable characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic, but with a twist. “Wonderland is a ballet that is upside down,” she says.

The difference arises from choreographer Shawn Hounsell’s style, which encourages artist input and personalizes each role for the dancers, Birtwhistle says. The results are sure to reward audiences. “The audience should expect to be in “Wonderland,” she says. “The public has never seen the dancers move like this.”

Birtwhistle, who has dazzled audiences over the years with principal roles in Gisele and Romeo and Juliet, will dance the role of the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland – the foul-tempered monarch famous for the oft-repeated line “Off with their heads.”

RWB’s 2010-2011 season closes in May with Bright Lights, Big City, which features a trio of distinct performances: In Tandem, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and In the Upper Room.

In Tandem, choreographed by Peter Quanz who is considered a rising star in the international dance world, maintains a fast pace and cleverness that reflects life in the big city. In the Upper Room, choreographed by Twyla Tharp who is one of the most influential figures in contemporary dance and who has choreographed more than 135 ballets, gives the audience a taste of the Big Apple.

With her final performance as Rita Joe, Tara Birtwhistle will bid adieu to her loyal Winnipeg fans, who she first enthralled in 1995 when she debuted with the RWB. Since the age of 13, when she first saw a performance of the RWB in Vancouver at Expo ‘86, she wanted to be a member of the company. She says, “I loved the way they moved and the spirit.”

As her stage career as a principal dancer comes to a close after 25 years, Birtwhistle transitions to a career behind the scenes, assisting with the choreography of younger dancers who will take on roles that she has performed. She is definitely hoping to stay affiliated with Canada’s RWB. As she says, “The company is like family to me.”

For more on the RWB, visit www.rwb.org

– Barbara Abramchuk is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, write to letters@outwords.ca.

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